Writers @ Work provides interviews of creative and nonfiction writers.
Understandably, just about everyone would like to be more creative. When we see an awesome movie or read something that changes our thinking on a topic, it is understandable that we are curuious about the writer.
Exploring the depths of the creative processes of successful writers has been a long-term preoccupation of journalists, artists and writers.
Since the 1950s, The The Paris Review has been conducting interviews of famous writers regarding their creative processes. In an interview with George Plimpton, Maya Angelou said she would leave her home to work most mornings in a nearby hotel room, where she’d arranged for the staff to remove distractions, like the artwork on the walls. She would work from 6 to 2 p.m., drinking sherry throughout the day:
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK.” I remember that and I start to write.Maya Angelou with George Plimpton
In Truman Capote’s Paris Review Interview. he advocated writing while sprawled out on a bed:
I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter.Truman Capote
Some of the advice about composing processes that famous professional writers offered over the years is clearly a bit quirky. Kurt Vonnegut liked to drop down and do push ups between paragraphs. Wallace Stevens wrote his poems on slips of paper on long walks. Edgar Allan Poe liked to use little strips of paper than then he’d wax together on a long scroll. Nearly blind, James Joyce would write with crayons while lying on his stomach in bed.
If you searched the internet for anecdotal accounts of writers at work, you would find many conflicting suggestions–and some of those suggestions would be unhealthy, especially in the longterm. Ernest Hemingway advocated, “Write Drunk, Edit Sober.” Hunter S. Thompson was famous for both his outlaw journalism and drug use. When writing he reported to the Associated Press that he’d crawl out of bed around 3 p.m. and immediately start consuming ridiculous amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and Chivas. Ultimately both Hemingway and Thompson killed themselves–so these may not be the healthiest ways of getting the work done.
Anecdotal evidence from writers about their creative processes is about as reliable as folk lore. There are moments of truth. And there are moments of intentional hilarity. Hyperbole is an important tool in the writer’s toolbox.
If you were to interview writers or follow a group of writers around and observe how they compose, you would probably be able to recognize common dispositions/attitudes, behaviors. After all, people have been writing since 3300 BC (See Wikipedia’s History of Writing). Over time, well worn paths have evolved, such as
- struggling to figure out what you want to say,
- trying to figure out what your audience knows and feels about a topic
- considering Rhetorical Constraints like Audience, Purpose, Voice, Topic
- talking over ideas with friends; scribbling down some rough ideas,
- looking at what other people have said about a topic;
- sharing drafts with critics.
These sorts of behavioral patterns are common to writers across time periods, cultures, writers, and rhetorical contexts. Knowledge of these patterns is critical to successful writing.
That said, it’s also true that across historical periods, genres and writing tools, there are loads of meaningful differences regarding writer’s composing processes. Thanks to today’s technologies, you have access to knowledge a click away. You can dictate on your iWatch while skiing down a mountain. But even so, there are some commonalities. So, it’s also true that new methods of communication are evolving over time.
To interrogate and celebrate writing processes, Writing Commons is eager to publish interviews of Writers @ Work. Please see Contribute for details on how you can join our community of writers and writing teachers.